Some film score composers churn out aural wallpaper that’s kindly dismissed as “movie music,” others overcompensate for directors who can’t deliver emotion without cueing a weepy violin solo or sentimental melody. And the consensus on the supposedly controversial Philip Glass? Either he’s a genius or an example of what can go very, very wrong when you don’t follow the shopworn mold of John Williams.
Specializing in what documentary filmmaker (and frequent collaborator) Errol Morris has dubbed the sound of existential dread, Glass writes maniacally repetitive compositions that seem to cycle for hours before coming to an abrupt end. In The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, Notes on a Scandal, and, most famously, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Glass’s peculiar brand of musical dystopia partners quite well with what’s on screen. In a star pageant like The Hours, he traps you in an overwrought, overlong music video.
Glass’s critics point out that his hired-gun work for the movie studios is but a piece of a career that has always prized ubiquity over quality. And The Glass Sound is certainly everywhere: in twenty-plus operas, eight symphonies, numerous concertos, string quartets, piano and organ solos, and collaborations with David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Richard Serra, Twyla Tharp, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith. If you’ve only heard Glass at the multiplex, you haven’t really heard the half of it.
It seems only appropriate that the man himself is now the subject of a largely adoring documentary that surveys the highlights of his distinguished career, gently probes the psyche of the genius, but doesn’t ultimately reveal a lot. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts, which had its area premiere last night at the Walker Art Center (where Glass has performed many times), doesn’t pretend to be a definitive biography or a particularly objective one. It’s the kind of breezy, loosely assembled love letter Sydney Pollack made about his architect buddy Frank Gehry and on those terms it’s a satisfying, entertaining 112 minutes.
Director Scott Hicks (of the tortured pianist drama Shine and also the Glass-scored Aaron Eckhart/Catherine Zeta-Jones foodie romance No Reservations) keeps a reverential distance from his likable subject. Dropping in on Glass family gatherings and professional assignations, he is an interloper who steals moments to ask about and observe The Process, but he isn’t, as far as I can tell, able to get Glass to sit still for many in-depth interviews.
The documentary is divided into twelve thematic chapters, starting with wife Holly’s tour of the maestro’s messy home office and ending in Germany for opening night of his latest opera, Waiting for the Barbarians. We hear from a smattering of Glass intimates (his first wife, his oldest son) and famous friends (Chuck Close, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen), visit him in the studio and before performances, and drop in at his seaside Nova Scotia retreat as he assembles homemade pizzas.
We learn that Glass was among the artists who colonized 1960s SoHo, introducing “minimalist music” to the scenesters sprawled on the floors of downtown lofts and galleries for his musical endurance sessions (made all the easier to endure with plenty of drugs). In 1976, he shook up The Metropolitan Opera with his avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach and though many other respectable engagements would follow, Glass was then (and has remained) something of a punching bag.
The movie shares some of those withering headlines from back in the day (“Music By Torture—6 Hours of Monotony”), but Glass insists that his lifelong “strong hate faction” doesn’t bother him. The film paints the seventy-one-year-old composer as a globehopping workaholic, distracted husband/father to wife #4 and two toddlers, and a spiritual searcher whose grab-bag of religious studies (Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, the Toltec tradition) mirror his eclectic musical roots as the star pupil of sitarist Ravi Shankar and French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.
Some of the film’s most revealing insights come from his sister, Sheppie, who scoffs at her brother’s marital requirements (“his wives must be half his age, plus seven”) and who speculates on how 1950s family dynamics played out for a Julliard-bound prodigy who shared his father’s love of classical music but not his desire for a traditional career.
Does all this add up to a particularly deep, rounded portrait of Glass? No, but that probably won’t bother anyone except those already tuned into his career. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts is perhaps the best we can expect of a drive-by documentary of this complex, stubborn talent. It’s as opaque and, at times, as maddeningly redundant as a Philip Glass film score. And the best thing about it is the soundtrack of Glass’s greatest hits.
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts plays through Sunday at the Walker.